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Despite all of the offseason hoopla surrounding the team, the projected starting lineup boasts a lot of familiar faces.
San Francisco 49ers Projected Starters
|QB: Colin Kaepernick||LE: Darnell Dockett|
|HB: Carlos Hyde||NT: Glen Dorsey|
|HB2: Reggie Bush||RE: Tank Carradine|
|FB: Bruce Miller||LOLB: Aaron Lynch|
|TE-Y: Vernon Davis||Mike ILB: Navorro Bowman|
|TE-H: Vance McDonald||Jack ILB: Michael Wilhoite|
|WR1: Anquan Boldin||ROLB: Aldon Smith|
|WR2: Torrey Smith||LCB: Chris Cook|
|SWR: Jerome Simpson||RBC: Tramaine Brock|
|LT: Joe Staley||SCB: Jimmie Ward|
|LG: Brandon Thomas||SS: Antoine Bethea|
|C: Daniel Kilgore||FS: Eric Reid|
|RG: Alex Boone||K: Phil Dawson|
|RT: Anthony Davis||P: Andy Lee|
Bold = position not in jeopardy
Italic = position possibly in jeopardy
Underline = position greatly in jeopardy
Things changed, but not really.
The new starters I have going into Week 1 are Carlos Hyde, Torrey Smith, Brandon Thomas, Tank Carradine, Darnell Dockett, Aaron Lynch, Michael Wilhoite, Chris Cook, and Jimmie Ward. Out of that bunch, only Torrey Smith and Darnell Dockett are new to the team, but Smith was a 1,000 yard receiver for Baltimore just two years ago. Dockett is coming off an ACL injury (such a familiar injury to the team), but showed no signs of slowing down in 2013 when he played in all 16 games.
Last year, Frank Gore touched the ball in the backfield 255 times, compared to Hyde's 83. I suspect Tomsula will give Hyde 200-220 carries this upcoming season, so long Bush and Hunter stay healthy. While many 49er fans, including myself, are excited about the addition of Jarryd Hayne, it's a pipedream to think he'll get touches in the backfield as the fourth HB—but I do think he will see significant time on special teams.
It's hard to tell how much Reggie Bush has left in the tank, now at 30 years old, with over 1200 carries for his career. However, Baalke recently described Bush as an "asset to Colin Kaepernick" this offseason, during a SiriusXM NFL Radio interview. Additionally, Tomsula described Bush as an "every-down back" this past March. This seems to tell us that Bush will be the number 2 guy behind Hyde, and Hunter is once again buried as number three on the depth chart.
If Brandon Thomas is healthy, he looks to be the starter at LG going into Week 1 based on his upside and because Pears' natural position is tackle, which he played in his first nine seasons in the NFL. Last year in Buffalo was his first season playing guard, and he struggled mightily.
I have Vance McDonald as the second TE on the depth chart, but his drop percentage (15.8%) along with Baalke's TE hoarding makes me think that Carrier or Blake Bell could emerge as the number two guy. Don't forget, Baalke traded up in the 2013 Draft to get Vance, so you'd have to think that since Baalke now has a head coach that will play ball with his personnel moves, McDonald will be in the lineup, unless his dropped ball rate gets worse.
Jerome Simpson is an interesting signing. I have him as our slot guy based on his speed and experience. At 6'2", he's a big body that would likely frustrate small nickel corners, but he's too fast to be individually covered by a LB. He ran a 4.47 forty in 2008, and while his speed may have declined, he was out of football all of last year, so he does have fresh legs. For some reason, we have yet to see Patton or Ellington get significant playing time, but I hope that changes this year, as both have shown flashes of brilliance when given an opportunity.
As you could probably tell, this depth chart is set with the idea that Justin Smith will retire. If by some miracle he decides to return to a team that many predict to finish last in the West, he obviously gets the start over Carradine. I have Carradine's starting job in possible jeopardy because of one man: Quinton Dial. While he is listed as a NT, Tomsula recently said, "When you watched Quinton Dial toward the end of last year, that was a pretty dad-gum good nose guard. I see him more as an end." If there's one thing I do trust Tomsula with, it's his ability to understand the scheme of the defensive line. Carradine's strength is rushing the passer, while Dial is better at stopping the run. It may come down to what Tomsula and Mangini prefer for a guy who will play just inside of Aldon Smith, but don't sleep on Dial. Remember, Carradine tore his ACL in college, so it still remains undetermined if he can hold up starting for a full sixteen game season at the NFL level.
I wanted to put Dockett in italics, primarily because of his age and our depth on the D-Line, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. The guy may have a big mouth, and some awkward Tweets (asking Katherine Webb out on Twitter), but he's one hell of a defensive end. Even though he's smaller than most DEs, Dockett uses his leverage to beat defenders from the line of scrimmage.
Dorsey is in the underlined because of Ian Williams. It's really a toss-up at this point as to who will get the job. Williams' problem is that he just can't stay healthy. He was supposed to be the starting NT in 2013, but broke his ankle in Week 2 against Seattle, and was placed on IR, missing the entire season. Dorsey filled into the starting role, and exceeded all expectations. In fact, he was the projected starter going into Week 1 against Dallas in 2014, but tore his biceps before he could hit the field, was placed on IR, and missed the rest of the season. Williams was shifted into the starting role after Dorsey's injury, but once again, nine games into the season, Williams suffered another leg injury, this time a fracture in his lower leg, and ended 2014 the same way he ended 2013, on IR.
Based on his progress last year, it seems like Lynch will get the nod over Ahmad Brooks. They're basically the same player, guys who can rush the passer, but struggle in coverage, except Lynch is younger, faster, and more athletic than Brooks. Expect Brooks to get his share of snaps, but Lynch seems like the guy who will get the majority of the time on the field.
Wilhoite's job is safe based on his performance last year; he finished second on the team in tackles, just behind (gulp) Chris Borland. He's played in all sixteen games the past two seasons, which cannot be underappreciated for a team that seems to be ravaged by the injury bug every season. Additionally, there is absolutely no depth behind Wilhoite to even give him some form of competition in camp. Right now, the Niners have Nick Moody, Chase Thomas and Desmond Bishop—it's simply not realistic to think that any of them have a shot to start in the NFL at this stage in their respective careers. Lance Briggs may be added during camp, but he's another one, just like Bishop, who has shown a steady decline at the position.
I have both Chris Cook and Jimmie Ward underlined because neither one has set himself apart from the rest of the CBs on the roster. Ward is still a raw prospect, and Cook has never been a guy that quarterbacks shy away from. Both will have opportunities to show their ability, as opposing QBs will pick them instead of Brock, who has proven to be a reliable corner that rarely gives up the big play. If Cook gets burned often and early weeks in the season, expect Dontae Johnson to replace him, and if Ward can't cover the slot receiver well enough, look for Keith Reaser to get some playing time. Although Reaser tore his ACL in 2013, he ran a 4.32 forty pre-injury, so if he can get back to that speed, he could take over for a struggling Ward.
All-in-all, I don't think this team is as bad as the national media is portraying us to be. On paper, I still think we have the second best roster in the NFC West, and the fourth best roster in the NFC, behind Seattle, Dallas, and Green Bay. Gore is aging and can't outrun defensive backs anymore, so his loss hurts more in the locker room more than on playing field. Although Iupati is a great mauler, he is average at best in pass protection. Crabtree has always underachieved, and his cancerous attitude should bring a less divisive locker room. Willis, Dorsey, Williams, Bowman, and Brock all missed significant time last year, yet the Niners defense still finished in the top five, again. Four out of five of those guys are returning, and if Smith stays, we only have two big losses with Borland and Willis. Cox and Culliver can both be replaced and Darnell Dockett is an upgrade over Ray McDonald. The real question will be the coaching. Remember, Tomsula and Mangini were both part of a coaching staff that oversaw a top 5 defense last year, and even though Mangini worked strictly with TEs, I don't expect any drastic scheme changes now that he's our DC, so everyone retuning from injuries should feel comfortable when we face Minnesota come September.